The church pews were full, but no one was making eye contact. Not a word was spoken, not a cough, sneeze or hiccup. Bram saw many dry eyes and wondered who all these people were anyway. Possibly just here for the tea and sandwiches offered after the funeral, his grandmother never had these many friends.
He looked from stranger’s face to stranger’s face as he listened to the all too familiar sermon of the pastor. Bram felt very much alone. His head hung, only the words spoken at the front of the church offered any resemblance.
“Tears are the safety-valve that God built into us to help us at times like these. It’s OK to cry.” The pastor’s arms dramatically waved as he spoke, as though it were meant for Bram alone. He didn’t cry, though. He didn’t allow another tear to form in his dry, itchy eyes. He had forced them to stop, throwing away all the pain he felt into Obscura. Ripping it off him as if it were tarnished skin, he could shed.
He knew his mother was sitting beside him. That was a certainty. What he wasn’t sure of is if she understood the full capacity of what happened of what it meant for Grandmother to be gone. The loss of laughter in their household would be definite. It would never be replaced, and he wondered how his mother even pulled herself this far. Indeed, she was so far doped up on medication pills, and she didn’t know which way was up—numbing all her feelings with those little purple and blue coloured drugs. The white ones were pushing her over human existence. That was where Victoria hid her feelings, not in Obscura but under layers of powdered medicines made into circles and forced into capsules. Not only sadness but also any love she could muster dissolved as the pill did too on her tongue.
She didn’t have her arm around him, no comfort of a lean or touch, not even her hand on his knee. The box of Kleenex in the pew opening in front of them still had the cardboard seal. This was the only family he had with him here, his father was nowhere to be seen, and Grandmother was the last surviving in her family. Mother was his only family, and she was the furthest from a family they could come. As cold as a stranger on the city bus who you accidentally bump into. A stare which is so solemn-faced you could paint a smile on it, and it would still melt into a straight-lined mouth.
“Open up, ancient gates! Open up, ancient doors, and let the King of glory enter.”
Bram pictured Obscura opening as it had for him, did Grandmother go to the light? Or would there only be ever darkness like Obscura? Where you cannot touch, speak or taste, forever in purgatory. He had tried to intercept her departure, tried to find and stop her in Obscura. To stay with him and offer unrelenting love only she seemed to give. He had hidden in the dark place for nearly too long, and he was unsure what had pulled him out. He had found himself lying on a stretcher at the hospital. The doctor’s face full in his vision. No lights, no darks just the youngest doctor face he had ever seen.
He had glanced over to see an older doctor covering his Grandmother’s face. He closed the memory quickly. It was only a few short days ago, and he hadn’t slept since. Every time he closed his eyes, he would see his Grandmother again. He would see Denim licking her face incisively. He had walked home from the hospital and found his mother locked in the bathroom. Either stoned out of her tree or sleeping in the bathtub.
Bram snapped from the memories when the pastor repeated louder.
“Does anyone wish to say some words on this, the loss of a beautiful woman?”
No one moved, scared even to blink people put their heads down. His mother next to him hardly looked to be breathing. Her hair braided up into a neat bun. He had kicked the bathroom door down and dragged her out to attend the funeral. Spraying deodorant over her body, she hadn’t showered or brushed her hair. Bram had called Malhi over reluctantly to help make his mother look presentable.
“What’s wrong with her?” Malhi had never met Bram’s mother before. He kept her the best-hidden secret of all time. Malhi explained she assumed his Grandmother was his mother.
“Nothing. Just fix her hair,” Bram regretted growling the demand at Malhi. Still, it forced her into action and shortly after, Malhi was hugging him goodbye with Victoria’s hair fresh smelling, braided from the temple of her neck up into a fashionable thick bun. There was even some rose colour painted on her cheeks. Bram didn’t tell Malhi about the funeral, and he now regretted not telling her as he sat alone, staring at the profile of his mentally lost mother. He couldn’t help but look at his mother and wish it was her picture at the front instead of his grandmother’s.
“Anybody?” The silence was killing the already stunned church. The pastor awkwardly ruffled a few papers and opened his mouth to continue. Bram stood.
All eyes were on him; he never intended to speak. He hated funerals, but all these people were strangers to his Grandmother. It seemed unfair for the silence to persist. The weight of loss was more significant than his fear of public speaking. The love for his grandmother pushed him to walk to the front of the church. He never looked up to meet anyone’s eyes. He kept his down and peeled to the floor. The pastor stepped aside, never asking who he was. He offered the small microphone pedestal and left Bram to stand alone. As a pivotal moment in his life, he is now and forever will be; alone.
“My Grandmother. Evelyn. My Evelyn.” He cleared his throat. The sadness he thought he dispersed in Obscura crept back in. He swallowed it hard, pushing it down deep.
“A mother, a father. They love out of necessity. Is it fair to have a child and not love them? So, their hand is forced, their heart is told. They need to love it. A grandmother. My Grandmother, she did not have to love me. She did not have to raise me. Like breaking a piece of her own heart off, she grew me as her own, and she held me when I was destined to fall. She tendered me when I was wilting. Not a mother, but a grandmother. A choice to love me.”
Bram didn’t mean to match his mother’s gaze after he split the words, he never even thought through the words, but they came nonetheless. Victoria blinked, looking at her son. She blinked, and he thought he saw the concrete of stoned emotional wall crack.
The funeral ended, and Bram found himself sitting on the front steps of the church, alone. Even the smell of fresh-cut grass and blooming trees did nothing to warm him. The happiness of spring all around him melted off his ice-covered demeanour. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he pondered going back to Obscura and possibly just letting himself slide this time and not allowing any doctors to pull him out. Just letting go and drifting away into the darkness. Where would he go?
Honk. Honk. Honk. A car alarm was going off, how classy at a funeral. He rolled his eyes and looked up but found his father sitting in a shiny new car in front of him. Honking the horn repeatedly to get Bram’s attention.
“Come on, son,” he waved for Bram to approach. He refused to stir, sat with his bum growing cold on the cement and his hands stationed in his pockets.
“I rented it. Just flew in an hour ago.”
“You missed the funeral.”
“Come on, son,” Thomas pleading now, both hands on the window sill. Bram walked down the cement stairs and climbed into the passenger seat. The car was brand new, fresh waterfall blue and branded VW on the hood. Not built for men over 6 feet tall, they both had their knees crunched on the dashboard.
“Where’s your mother?” Thomas implored, but Bram shrugged, walked out of the church and didn’t intend to return.
“You want to drive back east with me? Come for a visit.”
“No,” Bram replied, he didn’t care to go anywhere right now except Obscura maybe.
“I didn’t rent this car to drive around town here.”
Bram looked sidelong at his father. He was trying to force as much hatred into one stare as he could. He was not in any mood to attempt a several days drive with his father in such a small car. Although, it would get Bram out of school. Away from his mother. Possibly give her some time to heal from the death, or at least recognize it. Maybe it could be useful, he could tell his father how he feels. How his mother has never been the same since he left, how it was all his fault his mother cried continuously. Yeah, he could tell his father how much of a dick he was.
“What do you say, buddy? You want to make a road trip with your old pa?” He turned the ignition, and the small Jetta hardly sounded like it purred. More a mouse squeaking in the succession of belts turning.
“Sure,” Bram replied and turned to look out the window. He wasn’t going to make it easy for his Dad, but yes, a road trip sounded better than pouting around his house while his mother cried in another room.
“Really?” Thomas revved the engine in excitement. “Well, no delay then. Let’s go” He turned the car around, pulled a risky U-turn in the middle of the street and headed toward the highway.
“Thomas!” Bram cried, half in shock from the risky maneuver and half in irritation, his father was so over the top excited about this. His father just laughed. Some foreign energy Bram had never seen in his father filled his face, and his cheeks look fuller. Younger suddenly, even his wrinkles seemed to smooth, and the dust fell from around his eyes.
“This is going to be great!” Thomas exclaimed as they mouse pedalled down the highway.
“I have no clothes,” Bram groaned with realization he had nothing with him. Only the starch black clothing from the bottom of the closet.
“Forget it! We’ll stop in the next town and have a shopping trip.”
“Did you win the lottery?”
“No, I wish!”
“How can you afford all this then?” Bram figured it was about time his father put money into a visit with him, but he was also aware of how much renting a car would cost. He had investigated it once or twice when he thought about driving away and never returning—going nowhere in particular. The problem was you can’t rent a car when you’re only 16 and have no money. Then his father offering a new wardrobe on top of renting a vehicle for a road trip? His father indeed came into money, Bram thought.
“I can’t afford it,” Thomas laughed a nervously, “I think you need a break though, I will call your school tomorrow and tell them you’ll be out for a bit.”
“Oh. How long?” A familiar face of Malhi flashed in front of his eyes. Just last month, he had grown enough nerve to tell her he liked her. She replied she did too! He was overwhelmed and said no more, but had meant, this week, to ask her out on a proper date. Then disaster had struck. He promised himself as soon as he got back home, he would make his move with her.
“Let’s say a week, and I’m sure that’s about how much time I can get off without getting fired.”
“Sure.” Enough time for Bram to grow a backbone too. “Did you tell Mom?”
“Maybe we’ll let your mother panic for just a few hours, put a scare of isolation into her.” Thomas winked, and Bram could just imagine his mother ending up in the locked ward again for him going missing. A week probably would be perfect, only enough time for her to meltdown and build herself back up also.
The drive seemed monotonous at times, flicking between radio stations, staring out the window and counting down the miles to the next town. Sometimes Bram’s father would stop in the city. Other times, he would fly straight through, and Bram wouldn’t bother saying a thing. For a road trip, it wasn’t very adventurous. Bram knew his father couldn’t afford new clothing for him, so he didn’t bring it up again. Indeed Sam had a washer and dryer, which worked perfectly well, and Bram was accustomed to turning underwear inside out to stretch it. His father seemed preoccupied as well. Bram was lost in thought so the conversation never went much further than what song was playing on the radio.
A few times, he had pulled over to respond to messages coming through on his phone. Bram never dared to ask if it was his mother or Sam. Either way, Thomas seemed perturbed by them. The scenery was changing fluid-like from flat rolling green hills to deep crevasses of mountains, crystal clear lakes and snow threatening clouds.
“What’s the next town?” Bram caved; finally, he needed a break. The highway now was low, the water a mere few metres from the road. Weaving between mountains, they drove with no sight of civilization for hours. Bram was hungry, bored and getting sore from sitting.
“Can we grab a bite to eat?”
“Yeah, bud. That sounds like a great idea!” His father’s face lit, as if the sound of food may fix the woes unspoken—the ones forcing his phone to be pushed to silent and stuffed into his jeans pocket. Bram noticed but didn’t question what the problem was. Thomas spoke nothing but highly of Sam, and indeed by now, Bram’s mother knew he was missing and harassing his father as well. A sick joy came from Bram to think he was bringing frustration to his father’s tight world. To share in the impact Thomas created in his son’s life. Bram secretly hoped it was his mother, messaging offensive words to dig under his skin.
“Good, I’m starving.” Twiddling his thumbs, even the music no longer held his attention. The next milepost said Staunton was still nearly an hour away. Bram figured if his father wasn’t going to start any conversations, he might as well.
“How’s the new job?”
“Oh?” His father seemed genuinely intrigued Bram was asking. “It’s great! I have run the shop. I do all the training, so the guys turn into the exact type of workers I want. They like me there.” Thomas’ smile was enthusiastic.
“There’s a new crew of guys, and they speak no English. None!” He laughs suddenly, as if at an inside joke. “Their names are Seven, English and You.”
“What?” Bram laughs with his father, thinking he must be joking.
“Oh yeah. So, Seven, he comes to work this one morning and can’t figure out why his wife…”
“His name is Seven?” Bram interrupts, thinking he must have misunderstood his father.
“Well, these guys can’t speak English. So, the little bit that I teach them, they pick up things and then name themselves. We plain guys without much worldly experience have no chance pronouncing their homeland names.”
“So, you call him Seven?”
“Well, he was the seventh guy we hired,” another roar of laughter, and the conversation finally eases into talk Bram is comfortable in. His father tells him about the move, the change in his career. He is helping rebuild the tire shop, showing the guys how to run a business without leaning on outside influence properly. Without having to continually hire PR and HR to fix issues within the company, he is teaching Seven, and his crew how to work through domestic disputes.
The time passes easier now, and before he realizes, the town sign for Staunton arrives. The welcome sign is no larger than a pizza box, complete with grease stains and all. A large brown arrow takes up most of the space, basically telling you to leave the same direction as you entered. Bram must squint to read the writing at the bottom, ‘A mighty small town.’ Small indeed, there seems to be one strip of front stores, a gas station and the town is finished.
“Shit, Thomas! You missed the food place,” Bram pointed behind them, his father kept the car at such a pace they flew right past it.
“You’re not allowed to say shit!” was the reply before he slammed on the brakes and quickly made a u-turn. Bram concluded his father was not a very attentive driver, passing stops quickly and preoccupied with distant thoughts.
“Who says? You?” Bram threw the stab, mainly because he could. He saw the pain written across his father’s face in a moment, too, but didn’t regret the comment. His father knew he no longer reigned over Bram. He was his own man now, striving to try and find a balance between his failing mother’s mental capacity and his father’s nonexistence.
“How about this place?” Thomas asked, slowing to a stop in front of a massive neon white sign stating ‘Lily’s.’ A bright pink neon flower hanging below Lily’s name was hanging half off the pillared brick building. As a true strip mall style, all the storefronts shared a walkway and roof but separated by walls and doors.
“Love it!” Thomas continued, answering his question. He was trying to ease the tension which had built from Bram’s remark. Bram instead rolled his eyes and clambered out of the small car quickly. Stretching his lean form, his knees cracking instantly, he felt relief. His father was out just as quickly, stuffing cash into Bram’s hand and pointing to the flower shop.
“I’m running in there,” he was halfway down the street already, “order us something good.”
This quickly answered Bram’s earlier question of whom his father was arguing with over text messages. His wife, Sam. Indeed, she would not be thrilled about him taking off back east, then to spend money frivolously on renting a car to drive around. Bram wasn’t even sure how welcome he was to arrive to stay at her house for a week. She seemed the type who would be sent for a tailspin with any hiccup in her plan. He was never positive if Sam’s house was always clean or if she went over the top to show off when he came around. She would always be bustling around the house, washing dishes at every meal and never leaving a scrap to lounge on the counter. Fairtrade, he figured, instead of his mother, who would leave dishes for weeks and be found only in one corner or the other sulking.
Entering Lily’s, he was hit immediately with the Asian inspired smells. His mouth watered, his eyes dilated, and he wanted to order everything on the menu straight away. The menu was plastered to the wall to greet you even before the hostess. The pictures were stunning; sweet pork rolls, beef pad Thai, vegetable busting pho and grilled chicken on skewers. The smell of ginger with beef sizzling in oil sounds, he could nearly see the broths stewing. All his senses lit up. A far cry from the typical powdered mashed potatoes, he would muster at his own home. Now with his grandmother gone, there wouldn’t even be a roast flank to accommodate the crap.
The large cat happy clock on the wall seemed out of place in the sheer sophistication of the restaurant. Paint on the walls appeared fresh, dark colours: greys and deep red with black trim. The tables deep mahogany, red cushions on the chairs and simple white flowers donned each eating space. The swinging black paws of the cat clock banged through the restaurant, such a subtle sound, but it echoed powerfully in the silence. Not a table used. Not a soul was sitting for lunch, mainly because of the time being much past noon. The smells and sounds of cooking were almost certainly in preparation for supper now.
The hostess’ station was vacant, the stool pushed in, and the menus stacked neatly. Next to the cash register was a round terracotta plant pot. A freakish flat face, large eyes and half-smile decorated the pot. There was no flower in the centre, just tall grass. Strange, Bram thought. He ran his hand over the top silky blades. They tickled his palm—smooth green shoots, perfectly thin and perfectly straight.
Bram nearly broke the face pot when he jumped too quickly. His opposite hand made up the clumsy maneuver and righted the wobble.
“Smell it, and it is sweet and antioxidant. It is in our water, food and desserts. Good for your soul.”
“Eat in, take out?” Her accent was thick, and the small woman appeared behind the hostess station had appeared from nowhere. Bram nearly suspected she too could use Obscura with her sneaky silent move. The soft pearly cheongsam she wore clung to her petite figure in a way that forced her to move slow, not quick and quiet. Her face was a perfect circle framed by silky black hair. Olive eyes appeared shadowed by unhappiness. There was something her soft face was hiding, the way her hair fell too calmly over one eye. The way she kept her face pointed down and to the side to position the hair to remain. She had not spoked loudly or curtly. It had been worded so overly soft that Bram had to reply pardon several times.
“Eat in, please.”
Bram followed the troubled woman to the furthest table she could choose. It was quite possibly the smallest table in the restaurant, maybe meant as an emergency overflow table. The two chairs couldn’t even push all the way in if two adults sat there; indeed, one would have his/her legs on the outside of the tabletop. It sat right next to the opening for the kitchen. Bram shook his head at the stupidity of her seating him in this spot. There was the selection of every other table in the place. Although like a blessing in disguise, the smell of food at this table was intense. The woman returned with a menu and a small cup of steaming tea. The green leaves at the bottom of the mug danced happily and did wonders to soothe his starving belly.
“My father is coming too,” Bram commented, hoping maybe she would relocate his table. Instead, she cringed at the word father, dropped her eyes to the floor and hurried away. Bram leaned his chair back to see her hands suddenly shaking as she poured a second cup of green tea for his impending arrival of his father.
When she placed the cup on the table across from him, he hurried to order five different dishes from the menu. She scribbled them down so quickly he doubted she got it right. Her entire body seemed to tremble now, and he wondered what had spooked her.
As he sat waiting for his meal, the restaurant slowly trickled in more patrons. In no time at all, the tiny, elaborate building was bursting with talk. Words Bram could not understand, but the language sounded beautiful and intrigued him. He did also recall his grandmother telling him, “if you eat where the Chinese eat, you get the best Chinese food!” His grandmother’s words wrapped him like a comforting blanket before the memory of her death turned the blanket cold, and it fell to the floor in pieces. The conversations seemed to grow louder, filling the space to an almost unbearable height of happiness. It was etching under Bram’s skin, and it was turning the joyous sounds around him into a thick tar of guilt dripping off him. He shouldn’t be sitting here, and he should be home mourning his grandmother.
The laughs and praises around him seemed to take on a life of their own, building larger beings and layering jokes and acronyms in another language until they become nearly a real character. The buzz of dialect taking on a shape itself, bouncing off the smooth ceiling. Filling the shaded corners of the window sills, they crept up along the light fixtures. Nearly pushing them into a sway as the dark matter grew up and around Bram. They were taking him against his will, forcing him into Obscura for a cause larger than himself this time.
The Chinese words were dancing in the black space; bright white creatures were illuminating the darkness and creating a hallway funnel for Bram to follow and coaxing him towards them. Spinning to make halos of words he did not understand, pulling him towards a reason he did not know.
He felt himself go, he stopped fighting to stay back where the smells were, and he followed the words. They were close to him but also just past sight. Not moving far but staying enough ahead to make him continue. As if around a dark bend, he could see the flickering of them smashing into each other as they crowded into the next space. |Nought seemed to warn Bram in the back of his mind to stay away, and it was not meant for him. The brightness suddenly had come to Obscura. However, it was entrancing. It grew and slowly became a different entity altogether; the joy and happiness of the words melted away into hate. Shedding its cloak, the white light turned blood red. Angelic halos shattered as if the devil drug a razor-like fingernail through the words. Ruining them and suddenly, Bram did want to leave.
He wanted to turn back and escape through the hallway. He was trying to pull the blanket of Obscura off his eyes, with no avail. It was chained there. Nought was warning him, but something else was holding him in place as he was forced to watch the red melt away. An opening of Obscura burnt away at the edges, and he had an urge to the lookout. He did not want to see or partake any longer.
“Xià yīgè dìngdān,” he recognized the hostess’ voice. The kitchen appliances surrounded her image. Never had he seen such detail in Obscura before.
“Wǒ bù zàishuōle,” a male voice, just outside the burnt opening of Obscura. Angry and yelling, the words slammed through the entrance and smacked against Bram. They burned tears to his face as he watched the little woman pile herself into a ball on the floor. Her hands together and above her head, she was pleading with the livid voiced man.
“Nǐ bìxū zài zhǔ yīgè, ránhòu wǒmen kěyǐ xiūxí yīxià,” she was pleading, he was yelling, the words seemed to be smacking her. Turning her mulatto toned skin a hue red. A sore, undignified beaten red. The intensity was making Bram reeled backwards and pulling against the chains of virtuosity. Suddenly Bram understood the words, not because they were spoken in English but because Obscura opened his mind and allowed him to understand.
“Woman! Do not tell me what!” she was smacked with the words again, but it was not the words hitting her it. It was the man’s hand. He lifted her by her throat and made a fist this time.
“I have told you….,” the detestation, the loathing, the black of hate in his voice stabbed through Bram’s core. He coiled his fist back, and in doing so, his whole body became in view. Greasy fat and pale white, it angered Bram. This disgust of a man could not only beat such a sweet woman but also be able to own such beautiful words. That he then turned into a tool against her. He was using it to his advantage, ruining her kindness. Bram wouldn’t let this man hit her again. He pulled from deep within him. The bright halos of the words had enticed him to this position balled up with him. They were adding strength to his will standing here in Obscura. The chains melted away as Bram threw everything he had at the man. He was bursting himself through the burnt image, through the opening and against the man.
The force he emitted exploded against the oil-stained man. His white cook apron stained brown trickled red from blood droplets. His arm lay limply behind his colossal body, his eyes rolled around for several seconds, and his lips spat more blood. Just before the burning scene closed back to the darkness of Obscura, Bram saw the woman skittered away unscathed. The outburst had also rung a loud explosion through Obscura. It faintly echoed now and made Bram’s ears feel as though they would bleed. He had used the dark matter to his own will, and the ringing settled into a pitching shriek that could only be coming from one person. One thing. Nought.
Bram could feel his power crunching down on him, channelling through the endless branches of Obscura to punish him for what he has done. Forcing the particles to obey him was undoubtedly an act not meant for a kid like him to do. To be able to do, but the pure whiteness of those lighted words brought him here had helped him. They were nowhere to be seen now as the fury of Nought closed in on him, and Bram could think, could feel only one thing; death.
Fear flowed into him, just as a plane of matter had rippled for him to attack the man. Now it turned on him and threatened to choke him out. Usually, at the ease of finding his way back out, he felt disorientated by the shrieking echoes of Nought. The pounding closeness he was collapsing. He would soon be here, and Bram felt nothing left in him to getaway.
“Grandmother,” his mouth moved the word, and the light of it melted Obscura from him. It was freeing him to be back, sitting once more at the too-small table.
He had never felt, touched anything in Obscura as this before. His psyche felt wild, crazed as if it just found its wings. Sitting at the table now, the laughter around the restaurant filled his ears once more. The darkness of Obscura faded into the dim lighting around him, the lampshade above his head swung precariously from the force. It was made by him, ripping himself through Obscura so dramatically.
“Grandmother,” he found himself whispering the word again. Closing his eyes to say a silent thank you, he felt it was her who saved him. Maybe her last hooray at life, to linger in Obscura long enough. Perhaps it had been her creating those white halos to protect that woman. The sick pig of a man will never lift a hand to the precious innocence of the hostess again.
He sat, stunned and silent. He had never experienced so massive a retaliation in Obscura. His mind confused his eyes, his taste, his smell. Now all his senses were confused. He was reeling in the aftermath of what he didn’t even know. Remnants of white flakes showed in the corners of his vision, threatening to overload him back into Obscura. He blinked them away, refusing to linger in the black spaces.
“Sir, sir,” the hostess’ voice squeaked softly. Goosebumps flew over Bram’s arms; the sound of her coo jolted him and scared him all at once. He looked up and met her beautiful round face again. This time her cheeks were red. The white outlines of fingerprints had formed in her soft skin, but there was also an air of power. She had felt empowered by the beating being stopped. She had grown something new; he thought it.
“The kitchen is closed.” The words did not sound promising, but a smile spread across her face. Maybe this would be her last straw. Bram never hesitated, he jumped up and bolted out the restaurant.
The release of emotions came swiftly; he doubled over and began vomiting his pent-up anger. It came in swift surges of stomach bile; his insides were revolting in the outrage he forced in Obscura. They were punishing him for the strength it took. And, the fear of Nought, he sensed he now stood in wait for him.